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Mysterious vaping illnesses & deaths could be a rude wake-up call for users

by Mallory Culhane

In the past five years, the use of e-cigarettes in the U.S. has skyrocketed. Since August, there have been four deaths connected to vaping.   

An Illinois resident died from a severe lung disease that was caused by vaping in August. As of Friday, Sept. 6, there have been three more deaths in Minnesota, Oregon and Indiana, which are also connected to e-cigarette use.

“The health effects of vaping have always been a concern, and due to the recent cases of mysterious lung illnesses and a death being linked to vaping, it becomes even more of a concern,” said Gina Firth, associate dean of Wellness.

E-cigarettes are marketed as an alternative way to quit smoking among adults. However, due to the flavor component of e-cigarettes, teens and young adults have picked up the habit.

In a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2018, nearly 11 million American adults use e-cigarettes and over half of which are under the age of 35. The most prevalent age group of e-cigarette users are those aged 18-24.

“I started using a Juul when I was 17 around July of 2017,” said an anonymous UT student. “I honestly don’t really know why I got into it.” 

This student has quit on and off over the last two years and  is currently using a Juul every day.

E-cigarettes are still a new product; therefore, the long-term effects of vaping are still unknown.

“The sad thing is that we don’t know what the long-term effects are going to be. The kids that are vaping all the time are basically like guinea pigs and we will learn from them, over time, what the long term negative health effects are,” said Mary Martinasek, assistant dean of the college of natural and health science. 

Over the past few years, in order to combat the usage of e-cigarettes among teens and young adults, eighteen states have risen the tobacco age to 21. Illinois and Oregon are included in the list. Florida’s tobacco age remains at 18, though the Florida Senate passed a bill in April to raise the tobacco age to 21. UT has banned the use of tobacco products including e-cigarettes since 2016.

As of Friday, Sept. 6, there are 450 possible cases of severe lung disease due to the use of e-cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This number has more than doubled since Tuesday, Aug. 27 when the CDC reported 215 cases. Patients have experienced sudden symptoms including vomiting, fatigue, severe shortness of breath and fever.

“[The situation] scares me a little bit and is definitely concerning but I feel like I don’t use excessively and since I’ve gone back and forth in the past I don’t really plan on quitting because of this,” said an anonymous UT student. “I usually make a pod last two and a half days whereas I know people that go through a pack of four pods a day.”

So far, the illness has not been linked to a particular brand or substance. Investigators are looking into possible contaminants in production of devices or cartridges or whether the disease can be linked to extreme e-cigarette use. Many patients affected by the disease so far have used e-cigarettes that contain THC. 

“It’s very concerning for our youth and young adults who are purchasing these products without really knowing what they are inhaling,” said Martinasek. “Some students still believe it is merely water vapor, when in fact we know that there are carcinogens, irritants, and heavy metals that are being inhaled.”

Due to uncertainties and the ongoing investigation, the CDC is advising the public to limit or stop their use of e-cigarettes.  

“There’s just not enough information out there to say [vaping] is harmless, especially following this recent case,” said Allison Barthel, senior public health major and co-president of Breathe Easy UT. “I’m saddened, but also hopeful that we can learn more from this situation to help inform and protect others.”

Mallory Culhane can be reached at mallory.culhane@theminaretonline.com

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